Pop-up philosophy. Stop, sit down and just think. That’s what I wrote on a whiteboard – then I took it outside and propped it next to a small folding chair near the entrance to my office at City, University of London.
For a week, I had been travelling around London with two folding deckchairs and a whiteboard. My quarry was stupidity-intensive spots. I had set up outside the London Stock Exchange, a large bank that had been bailed out by the taxpayer, the Houses of Parliament, Oxford Street, St Paul’s Cathedral and the BBC. Now it was time to reflect on the stupidities closest to home. So I set up my deckchairs outside my own university.
Students and faculty came and went, saw the deckchairs, looked at me, read my sign. Some seemed surprised. Others took a photo with their smartphones. Many laughed. A few sat down and joined me in a few minutes of quiet contemplation.
Universities are supposed to be seats of learning and engines of the knowledge economy. But a decade spent studying stupidity-intensive organisations had taught me that, all too often, universities are hothouses for organised idiocy. I myself am a professor. When I ask my colleagues from different universities to describe their own institutions, one of the most frequent words they use is ‘stupid’.
They share stories of British universities that value a journal article of a few pages more than a landmark monograph of hundreds of pages. I heard about a large public university that spent tens of millions of dollars to develop a private university that attracted only a handful of students. My editor chimed in with the story of an Ivy League university in the US that spent $25 million to launch an online ‘knowledge network’ called Fathom that closed after three years.
My favourite was the tale of the world-famous expert in intelligence who became the president of a US university, and then quickly spent more than $1 million on administrative changes. During his short tenure, he alienated faculty by instituting pet projects and insisting that they wear brown clothes around campus on Fridays.
The more I looked, the more I discovered that universities habitually invested time, energy and resources into all manner of pointless initiatives. These created dense thickets of administration that often made even the simplest tasks inefficient in the extreme. Universities today routinely run rebranding campaigns to distinguish themselves, but that end up making them more indistinguishable from their peers.
Take a close look at a university website and you’ll find the same PR boilerplate about having cutting-edge research, world-class teaching and real-world relevance. You’ll also see photos of the same three students lounging around on a lawn. One woman, one person of colour, one white guy. More adventurous seats of higher learning add two men in the background playing frisbee. Colleges on opposite sides of the world have almost identical branding campaigns. The University at Buffalo used a picture of college buildings overlaid with the words ‘Here is how’; 9,000 miles away, the University of Sydney used a similar image of old buildings, again with the tag line ‘Here’.
In many universities, the simple fact that the commercial sector has adopted a practice is enough reason for leaders to give it a try. This keeps consultants peddling management fads in business, but it usually results in a dense sediment of procedures and regulations that few understand and none really believe to be effective. Universities support cultures that encourage faculty to work late into the night researching and writing scholarly papers that will be read by a small handful of other hyper-specialised experts. What they rarely support is time to think.
I hoped that my deckchairs might give professors and students an opportunity, even if for a moment, to do nothing but think. A handful of colleagues joined me, quietly sitting. ‘It’s nice to be able to think for once,’ one said. ‘I spent most of the day writing reviews of pointless research papers,’ another noted. ‘That’s pretty mindless,’ he added. Another told me: ‘It’s like being at my summer-house back in Finland. That’s when I do my thinking.’
Today, we live in a culture of thoughtlessness. The American Time Use Survey found that although 95 per cent of respondents said that they did at least one leisure activity during the previous 24 hours, 84 per cent had spent no time at all relaxing or thinking. A study by researchers at Harvard University found that when we engaged in thought that was not directly related to present activity (so-called mind-wandering), we tended be less happy.
A recent study by psychologists at the University of Virginia asked subjects to simply sit in a room and ‘just think’ for 6 to 15 minutes. In the room was a button allowing subjects to electrocute themselves if they wanted. The researchers found that the majority of subjects would rather electrocute themselves than just sit quietly and think. One person electrocuted himself 190 times during this short period.
The vast army of electronic devices surrounding us has proven an able ally to our fear of thinking. Only a decade or two ago, everyday life held many small parcels of time in which we would be marooned with our thoughts: queuing, sitting on public transport, idling in a traffic jam, or even just waiting for a friend.
Today, the first thing people do when faced with a moment of downtime is to reach for their smartphone. A study by the market research agency Harris Interactive in 2013 found that we use our smartphones when walking down the street, watching films, or while in places of religious worship; 12 per cent admitted to using their phone while taking a shower; 9 per cent had checked their smartphone during sex.
Once interrupted, it takes employees on average 25 minutes to get back to their original task